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Interviews

Tessa Traeger:
a life in light

December 2016

Tessa Traeger is one of the world’s finest photographers with a passion for still-life, people and the land they cultivate. With an eye for detail and a knack for turning everyday objects into things of great beauty, CPN Editor David Corfield went to visit and find out more about her love of light...

“I miss film. We used to have some very nice lunches as we waited for it to be processed...” quips Tessa Traeger. This “seventy-something” photographer has been at the top of her game since the 1960s and her base, at Rossetti Studios in London’s Flood Street, has been her studio all that time. From working at British Vogue magazine shooting its food features to being commissioned by some of the world’s biggest advertising agencies for global campaigns, for over sixty years her love of photography has never wavered and in today’s digital age she is more excited about the future than ever before.

The beginnings

Tessa is the widow of Ronald Traeger, an American fashion photographer, painter and graphic designer. She is also the sister of architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, CBE, who was responsible for many notable projects in the UK such as Waterloo International railway station in London and the Eden Project in Cornwall. He is also a former President of the Royal Academy. Tessa is well connected and art was always in her blood.

© Tessa Traeger
© Tessa Traeger

After Monet. French salad advert, 1989. This was one of the first images Traeger worked on digitally, using the Quantel Paintbox system.

“My mother was a painter,” she explains. “And my great uncles were quite keen photographers and used to collect cameras. I got really interested thanks to them and started to develop my own films in my bedroom as a thirteen-year-old girl. My sister was already at Guildford art school by then, in the painting and design department, and used to bring home her photography friends for tea. One day there was a family conference and I asked ‘what will I do when I grow up?’ and my sister suggested I be a photographer. With a full family of artists, and a talent for Maths and Science, I had the right background and Guildford had the best photography course of its kind; in fact it was the first.”

Still-life has always figured prominently in Tessa’s world. As a student she would photograph plaster casts and things from the school prop room. “I made collages from objects and would photograph anything I could get my hands on,” she recalls. “I always knew what I was going to do.”

“When I was 25 I married Ronald Traeger. He would occasionally do some of the food pages for Elle magazine while on fashion shoots abroad and I would assist him. After his untimely death I decided to carry on doing food, as I loved the provenance. You can tell so much about a country by its food. I produced a portfolio of food pictures from Yorkshire, Norfolk and Devon and showed this to Barney Wan, the art editor at the time of British Vogue. He liked the pictures and paired me with food writer Arabella Boxer.” The partnership was to last 16 years and cemented Tessa’s reputation as one of the finest food and still-life photographers in the country.

Developments in digital

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the world of still-life is far removed from cutting edge digital work, but far from it. Tessa was one of the first photographers in the late 1980s to realise its potential and used the Paintbox program from Quantel to help transform her work.

© Tessa Traeger
© Tessa Traeger

Heart Collage for British Heart Foundation made from fresh vegetables. Traeger made these intricate and beautiful collages her hallmark.

She explains: “The Photographers’ Gallery in London invited several artists to retouch their pictures on the system, for a show called ‘Machine Dreams’ in 1989. I chose to transform my ‘Homage to Monet’ poster for French salad, which was originally a collage in my studio.” Tessa made the collage or real vegetables into a 15ft wide poster, distorting the images and elongating them until they seemed to smear, which produced the illusion of reflections on water. “It was my first exposure to computer technology and I have never stopped using digital since.”

Tessa’s first foray into digital capture was with the original EOS 5D in 2005. She later upgraded to the EOS 5D Mark II and has now got her eyes on a 5DS R after reading the reviews.

“I love the Canon digital cameras, especially when on location,” she admits. “I can walk around and photograph as much as I like without worrying about rushing to set up my large-format camera or the cost of developing the film later. The only downside of it now is that you have to spend ages editing afterwards. You usually know though, which image is the best. Oddly enough it can often be the first.”

“I always do a lot of research. At Vogue we went every three months for a week to a foreign town to photograph its food. The first thing I would do before those trips were to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum to find the china and utensils people would use from that country. Then I’d read a lot so I knew what I would be looking for. It’s very important to do that, I feel. You need to be prepared aesthetically as well as practically.”

“My guiding idea at Vogue was that I would come up with something every month that nobody had ever seen before. I had no art direction; nobody ever came to tell me what to do. It was luxury and very unusual. Arabella wrote her piece and I did my pictures and we rarely met except for those trips away and the occasional meeting. We would present our ideas every year to Beatrix Miller [the formidable editor of British Vogue from 1964 to 1985] and she almost always accepted them totally, except for one year, when she asked for a few more puddings...”

Working alone and with a team

Tessa is quite happy absorbing herself into her work and frequently works alone, especially when preparing for an exhibition. She is currently working on her next show with her neighbour in North Devon, the poet and ex-Curator of Photography at the V&A Museum, Mark Haworth-Booth. They have already collaborated on the book ‘Voices of the Vivarais’ and this new exhibition of work inspired by the Devonshire countryside is called ‘Wild is the Wind’ and will be on show at London’s Purdy Hicks Gallery in February 2017. She also loves the challenges of commercial work, “because it is part of real life. I meet amazing people, and it is where the mastery of the craft of photography is essential, as it always has been and still is. This year I finished four books, and very much enjoyed working with teams of inspiring and talented people.”

© Tessa Traeger
© Tessa Traeger

Murmuration of Starlings No. 9, North Devon, 1999. Shot at extremely high ISO so the birds almost blend with the film grain.

She derives pleasure from the simple things in photography: from a glimmer of sun breaking through clouds to a carefully placed mirror directing the light just as she wants it. “I remember once sitting in a location van on the Yorkshire moors, listening to Mozart. It was such a difficult shoot and we got the shot, finally, after a battle with the wind and the rain. Moments like that make it worthwhile. Or when I’m working in the studio on my own and suddenly something happens that makes you go ‘that’s a winner’. Those are my moments of pleasure. The rest is just hard work and routine.”

On her lighting, she admits she uses every trick in the book to elicit detail and texture. “The daylight here in the studio is exceptionally good and it really does wonders for a subject,” she explains. “Having spent my life trying to make things look better than they really are, I use silver paper, reflectors, mirrors, spotlights... I also use HMI lights when the light fades in the winter. Everything I can get my hands on, in fact.”

Tessa remembers the early days of working in the darkroom, dodging and burning her black and white prints. For her, the purity of that alchemy is where the real magic lies. “I loved printing but in the end I worked with a professional printer. Printing is like working in a kitchen, you see. Developer is like a soup; it goes off very quickly. I worked for years with a wonderful man called Tony White who was a real genius, who sadly died in 2011. We’d hang over the dev together and we were always trying things out and improving. I loved those times; they were magical.”

In terms of camera craft, she remarks: “I decide what the picture is I want to take and if I know how to do it then fine, and if I don’t know how to do it I learn. I don’t like technique for its own sake. I search for it when I need it. The idea must always come first. I learn the technique to support the idea.”

“And now with digital photography, I’ve never been more excited!” she exclaims. “It brings me back to my art school days when I was experimenting and learning. We are living in terribly exciting times, you know. Anything is possible and the glorious days of photography are not over. You can dream up something and just do it. I look back at my work and I don’t have personal favourites from my past, although the galleries certainly do. I always focus on looking forward, not back.”

“The life of a photographer is not easy. It is filled with anxiety, fury and frustration with only about five percent of pleasure. But, when you get it right, you experience the most gratifying sense of fulfilment and you realise why you love the profession so much.”

Biography: Tessa Traeger

Tessa Traeger

Tessa Traeger is an acknowledged master of still-life photography, known for creating images of an intensely personal and original quality. She trained at Guildford School of Fine Art and Photography and has worked in her London studio since the 1960s. After many years of photographic investigation, notably in her use of colour in still-life photography of food, in the 1990s Traeger began to photograph the hill farmers and their traditional methods in a remote region of South-Western France. This project culminated after 15 years in an artists book, 'Voices of the Vivarais', and a solo show at Purdy Hicks Gallery in London. She has exhibited regularly since 1978 in Paris, London and New York as well as participating in many group shows. Her work is represented internationally in the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Bibliotheque National in Paris and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.



Showcase

Eels being prepared for the salting and smoking process. English Food Book Project, 2011.